This is one of the little 'short' stories I sometimes tend to write when I'm in a particular mood or sometimes to experiment a bit. Also, some of you guys have accused me that too many bad things happen to my characters. As an apology, this one is a very bright and cheerful story (I'm totally serious!1).
I polished it a bit because I was and still am quite fond of the premise and idea behind it all. I severely recommend finishing it in one go. The ending probably won't make a lot of sense otherwise. And yes, this one too plays with the expectations of the reader. However, seeing as this is a one-shot, the ending encompasses all the answers necessary to understand the story - if you paid attention ;).
Hope you enjoy it!
P.S.: No, this didn't delay my work on the third year of Black Luminary. I just thought some of you guys would like something to read in the meanwhile.
Things you cannot leave behind
...and then he won.
But it wasn't at all what it was supposed to be like. It wasn't the happily ever after of fairy tales. People had died – of course, they had – but too many of the right sort had gone. To Harry, whose childhood had left him with precious few people he could trust and cherish, every person he had lost had left a terrible wound behind, tearing his heart asunder. Losing all of them felt like a thousand needles under his skin that he could never grow used to, that stung with every movement and thought.
In a self-destructive way, he revelled in the pain, wallowed in the misery; it was the only thing he had left, the only reminder of better times.
It didn't help that he had won – not really. During the hours of the sun, he was dragged from one meeting to celebration, shaking hands with people he didn't know, laughing at jokes he found distasteful or dull, smiling into the cameras he hated. During the night, he tossed and turned in his sleep, plagued and beset by a thousand nightmares, forced to unendingly relive the horrors of war.
He had money, of course. His parents had left him with a respectable fortune, nothing too grand but certainly enough to see him through the modest life of a bachelor. And then there were the gifts, the prizes, the medals and decorations – all the pricey, shiny junk they shoved into his unwilling hands. For a time, he had embraced the lifestyle, got literally drunk on the experience. It had left him feeling only emptier inside.
How he wished to speak with those who really mattered, those he could have truly talked with – not just spoken to.
Hermione, brilliant, bright, and ever-optimistic. How principled she had been, quick of wit, and staunch of heart.
And crushed beneath a million tons of rock when Voldemort's last failsafe caused the cavern with the fake locket to collapse. A fake – he'd lost his best friend, their best chance, to fetch some gaudy brass trinket.
It hadn't become easier afterwards...
Grimly, Harry took another swig from the bottle, staggering towards the next pub to get a few drinks before inevitably getting chucked out again.
He remembered Ron, the most innocent of his comrades. Eager to help, to prove himself. Fierce and uncompromising towards any obloquy inflicted against those he called friends. His best mate. The one he could share his slightly unhealthy Quidditch obsession with.
Died when the tail of his broom caught fire in the Room of Requirement – charred to a lump of coal or less thanks to the curse of a classmate.
A mother escorting her little daughter back from school was goggling at him and speaking in a hushed voice to her sprog. They hurriedly crossed the street.
Harry scowled, raising his bottle again. Yet this time, only a few lonely drops of the promised waters of forgetfulness sprinkled his throat. With an angry grunt, he threw the bottle against the next best trash can. It had been the cheapest grain spirit the petrol station had pitched.
Ginny... God, even Ginny! Bellatrix's derisive cry of triumph was still ringing in his ears like fingernails on a blackboard whenever he closed his eyes.
One junction further down the road, Harry had to stop since his stomach didn't seem to agree with the cheap booze after all. Or maybe he should actually have eaten something since...the day before yesterday or something?
A few rubbernecks stared at him. When a kind-looking woman in her thirties asked if he needed help, he rudely shrugged her off. What the hell is their problem?! He'd fetched up into the bin, hadn't he? All neat and tidy!
Percy, Fred, and Molly had survived. And Molly, despite the pain, despite the grief that sprang from her eyes, had – in tears – insisted that he stay with them. Bless her. But he saw how much his presence pained her, pained Fred. They'd never said a word, never moved a muscle to make him feel unwelcome but – or so Harry had found out – there were disadvantages to the habits of war; you noticed things, for once.
Around the next corner, Harry finally spotted another bar. Swaying on the spot for a few seconds, he eventually managed to grab the handle. The pub was empty, and the proprietor looked up with barely concealed disgust as he saw him tottering up to the counter. His cloak, in particular – befouled with blood, booze, and all other possible kinds of filth only several consecutive pub-crawls could ostensibly be held responsible for – seemed to arouse suspicion.
'Three beers. Big ones,' slurred Harry.
'And you will be paying...sir?'
Wordlessly, Harry slammed a few dozen banknotes in front of him.
Immediately, the barman assumed a more polite attitude. 'Of course, sir. Right away.'
Even Dumbledore, Albus bloody Dumbledore, had managed to get himself blown up. When Snape had finally revealed the worst of it all – confessed under tears – Harry, twenty-one at the time and after years and years of fighting, just hadn't been able to take it anymore.
He'd killed a man that night. An innocent man. A man he hated, despised – true – but a man who had loved his mother, truly loved her. A man who had virtually forsaken his entire life to protect him.
With both hands and the exaggerated care of a drunk, Harry lifted the first pint to his parched lips, ignoring his silent company's look of surprise as he downed the whole thing in one go.
'Name's Morris. Bad day, friend?'
Harry scoffed, putting down the glass. 'Bad decade,' he mumbled in a rasping voice.
'Aye, there's those,' said the man knowingly.
Harry barely refrained from bashing his skull in right then and there. Still, he supposed there was an upside to having your mind assaulted by vicious magic: self-control. Sadly, being in control of your own mind and body didn't translate to being in control of your own life.
'Look, I really don't want to say this, but maybe you should...take a break after that one?' proposed the man nervously, watching Harry down the second pint. 'Do you have someone I can call? So they'll pick you up?'
'Neville Longbottom!' Harry said with a grim expression.
'He a friend of yours?' replied the man with relief.
'Oh, yes. Through thick and thin...thick and thin...'
'Brill! If you'd just give me his number, I'm sure he'll be able to pick you right up.'
'Can't though,' mumbled Harry, his face twisted, 'on account of him being dead.'
The man flinched. 'Someone else, then?'
'Right, and her number...?'
'She doesn't have a phone, silly! Wouldn't do her any good in the belly of a dragon anyway, I shuppose,' Harry added thoughtfully, concentrating his blurred vision on the last pitch.
'Right. Someone else then, perhaps? Someone not fantastically deceased?' asked the man with a hint of impatience.
Disgruntled, Harry fumbled with his collar for a bit until – with a grunt – he produced a business card dangling like a dog tag from a chain around his neck. The man looked a smidge relieved to finally be rid this customer before he managed to defile his bar just after he'd opened it for the day. But when he made to grab the card, Harry held it high out of reach. 'Tut – tut – tut. You'll get it if you bring me two more of those...shtuff!'
The bartender visibly stiffened. Woefully drunken guests were one thing – guests with alcohol poisoning were quite another. 'Are you sure that's a good idea, sir?'
'You can ruddy well shtick your shir where it belongsh! Give me those pints, and I'll give you the bleedin' card!'
With a sigh, the man drew two more beer. With any luck, the poor sod would bite the dust in the car of his pitiable friend. He only hoped said friend did exist and wasn't just another phantasm of inebriation. Dragons, indeed!
A worryingly short time later, the pints were empty again, and the man couldn't quite help getting a bit nervous, hoping for help to arrive – soon! His call had only connected to an answering machine of some law firm. He'd have to call an ambulance otherwise, and wouldn't that be nice publicity.
Just then, a prim-looking man in his late twenties or early thirties entered the bar, wearing a pristine suit of navy blue, expensive shoes, and a garishly red cravat. He had finely combed ginger hair, and his whole appearance just screamed money and confidence. It also gave off the impression that this here was a man dusting the underside of his furniture, but the barman was quite willing to overlook that bit.
The lawyer made for an extremely odd sight next to the decrepit and – quite frankly – disgusting drunkard who'd seen fit to honour him this noon.
The new arrival sighed heavily. 'Really, Harry. This is the third time this month already. Don't make me come for this again.'
'Piss off, Percy!'
The man sighed again, wrinkling his nose. But, in the end, he put one arm around the sad excuse of a human being to help him up. With an apologetic glance at the proprietor, he put two hundred-pound bills on the counter. 'For your trouble.'
The barman stared at the money. 'Thank you very much, sir!'
Enter the Hero
'Really, Harry, this needs to stop!'
Harry was currently lying on a couch, hands flailing about. 'Whe'sh ma drink...?' he asked, blinking confusedly.
Percy ran his hand through his hair in frustration. Then, with a smug grin, he vanished into one of the bathrooms, only to reappear with a phial that smelled like cough syrup. 'Oh, whatever. Bottoms up!'
Harry cheerfully reached for the phial, gave it a sniff, determined its contents to be vaguely similar to ethanol, and chugged the whole thing.
Three seconds later, he was screaming blue murder, glaring at the smug-looking weasel of a Weasley. 'Fuck that! Did you really just give me a potion to sober me up? Do you know how long I had to work on getting there?!'
'I can only imagine,' responded Percy drily.
'Three bleeding days! And now – all gone. Just like that!'
'See here, Harry. I'd really like to stay and listen to one of your childish rants, but – in contrast to you – I actually do have a job. There's food in the kitchen. Just...just take a shower or something.'
With one last look back at the ruin of a man, he added, 'And don't answer the door.'
Yes, Harry's life wasn't exactly sunshine and roses. In all honesty, he didn't lose control like that very often. Maybe once a month. Sometimes a bit more often. Never more than twice a week at most. But still, it was apparently often enough for Percy to not even get angry with him anymore. Now, all that remained was...disappointment. And it hurt.
But what was one more hurt to him at this point?
His whole life was built on pain – mountains, massifs, planetoids of pain, remorse, and grief.
And always there had been this one question, this one last bastion of rationality his slowly dissolving mind was clinging to.
Why had it all turned out like this? Where had he messed up? Had there been one event where fate had decided to spurn him? Maybe when he'd decided to make a last stand at Hogwarts, condemning hundreds of stupidly heroic brats to die in the fight they thought was theirs? Maybe when he'd finally given in to Hermione's and Ron's insistence that he was being paranoid about Draco – which would eventually lead to Flitwick's demise at the hand of some Death Eater whose name he didn't even know to this day? Or maybe he'd messed up earlier, much earlier than that. At the graveyard? The tournament?
Maybe he should have paid more attention in class from the beginning? He wouldn't have had to patch up his shoddy education later on, bumbling from one misstep to the next, together with his mate with whom he'd loitered away years of possible training. Maybe, he sometimes thought when the pain was just too much, maybe he should've tried to reason with Diary Riddle. Maybe the younger Riddle could still have been reasoned with, mellowed, contained, perhaps even swayed.
Harry crouched in a ball, remembering what had caused him to be like he was when he'd entered the Wizarding world. Maybe he should have run away, back then.
Died at Voldemort's hands, aged one. How much pain he would have been spared. How much hope he wouldn't have had to suffer – only to watch it being squashed to a bloody pulp. Someone else might have taken up the mantle, then. Someone better. Someone whole.
Wasn't it ridiculous? Today, this moody mess of a layabout marinated in cheap booze was probably the most powerful wizard in Britain. At the very least, he was the one with the most experience and expertise when it came to fighting for his life. And yet, for three years, Harry just couldn't will himself to pick up his wand again. He didn't dare.
Back then, he had been so eager, so willing, so...starry-eyed. It was revolting, looking back at his innocent, incomprehensible old self. Harry just couldn't see any overlapping characteristics between the headstrong, if awkward, boy from back then and...whatever it was he had become.
Harry, idly lolling on the couch, played with the tea cloth for a while.
Bloody hell, he needed a distraction. Maybe he should write Astoria again? He hadn't really replied to any of her many letters recently, and – again, bloody hell – she could be annoyingly pushy. But hearing her lustful moaning, her begging for more, that really was something he could never truly get enough of. If nothing else, her body was something of a wonder to be cherished. Also, it had to be said, he derived an evil pleasure from the fact that they'd been deceiving Draco effing Malfoy for more than two years now.
It was true, he didn't really feel anything for her, but her company was pleasant and pretending there was more was easy, too easy. Whenever she told him that she'd missed him, whenever she confessed that she wanted to be with him, to leave her husband, it was easy for him to nod, easy even to lie. Words like 'I love you' just came so easily, automatically perhaps, when you were in bed with a gorgeous woman.
But her breaking up with that stupid ponce would beat the entire point of the exercise, and so he always...persuaded her to delay the decision.
He was just about to wreak havoc on Percy's flat in search of a quill when he remembered that Percy had told him that Astoria was said to expect a baby. With a shrug, he decided that it wouldn't really matter. It wasn't any of his business after a-
And then he froze.
The entire world froze, every single thought in Harry's brain reached a stand-still. Every single thought but this one:
A baby – and whose?
His brain felt as if it were on ice; his stomach turned as if a troll had kicked him in the gut. Jumping over the furniture and smashing a reading lamp, Harry dashed into the bathroom, emptying the rest of his stomach.
Five minutes later, Harry managed to stand up only to – accidentally – turn the wrong way. What greeted him was the sunken, hollow, pale, almost comically grotesque face of a man somewhere between twenty-five and forty with a filthy mop of dark hair and a rancid-looking beard.
In fascinated horror, he stared at his mirror image, revulsion and disbelief fighting for supremacy. Slowly, his finger ran over the scar some dosser had given him with a shard of glass last week. It hadn't been the first incident of that nature. He traced the tender tissue all the way from his eyebrow to his chin. He hadn't even realised it at first, choosing instead to pummel every inch of the man he could reach in a blinding rage. Only later, in the next pub, had someone remarked that he should probably have that looked at.
For just fifty pounds, some patron who had claimed to be a vet had done the stitches in the men's restroom.
Aghast, he beheld the bags under his eyes. They had a violet-greenish hue, standing in stark contrast to his waxen, sweaty skin.
As Harry gaped wordlessly at what he had allowed himself to become, he couldn't – once more – help wondering where he'd gone wrong.
Enter the Hero
Two and a half years had passed, and even Percy's patience had come to an end after his most recent relapse. In the Weasley's defence, thought Harry, that was probably due to Audrey's influence. She didn't want the desolate waste of human flesh around her newborn child.
It was telling that both Harry and Percy reluctantly agreed with her.
Rain splashed onto the ground and into the many puddles the past few rainy days had left on the muddy ground. Harry, shoulders hunched, refused to seek shelter.
'Today, we bemoan the loss of Astoria Malfoy...'
Draco stood next to his mother, dignified and rigid. Harry, hidden in the last rows of the crowd, watched them like a hawk.
'...loving wife and mother, who was taken from us so violently...'
The rain pounded his coat, hitting him as if every single drop was an expression of great disgust, as if Harry was a menace to the very clouds – a menace they wished swept away.
It was telling that he agreed.
Surprisingly, someone made her way through the crowd and came to a stop at his side. Even more surprisingly, the person in question seemed to recognise him. Nowadays, most people seemed to believe he was on some fantastic adventure in the tropics, rescuing the innocent, slaying dragons, and bewitching the ladies.
He wasn't, of course. It was just that few people still made the connection between the rowdy bottle of self-pity that was the real Harry Potter and whatever the Prophet managed to concoct from old memories and fancy imagination. But, and this was the joke, he had tried to better himself – he really had. He even had, just a few months ago, finally gathered all his remaining courage and told Astoria he'd care for her and the baby as best he could. He'd never hidden from her what a mess of a person he was steadily becoming, but even then she had been happy – so incredibly, painfully, heart-stabbingly happy.
'Are you sober?' muttered Daphne Greengrass coldly.
'For now,' he grumbled, his voice hoarse and throaty.
Rain continued to shoot down at him, clobbering his mantle with a force that made it hard for him to keep standing, each gust of the wind lingering as another pleading howl in his ears.
'...in these most terrible of times, it is with her bereaved that our thoughts linger...'
'She loved you, you know?'
Harry's insides turned to lead, but he just stood there.
'At least answer me!' hissed Astoria's sister in a tone that suggested she was barely keeping herself together.
'I know,' he admitted in a small voice.
'And as we bemoan Astoria, we also grieve for Jamie Dorea Malfoy...'
The name was another few thousand trolls trampling his heart to paste. Jamie Dorea. Only one year back, when Harry had – at last – stopped drinking, had he finally realised just what exactly Astoria had named her baby girl. She always had been too clever for her own good. Much cleverer than him, without a doubt.
'Why did it have to be like this?' whispered Daphne in a shaky voice, now definitely crying. 'Why couldn't you just man up years ago?!'
Harry swayed dangerously on the spot as the entire remaining population of beasts and monsters stampeded through his innards.
Looking up through misty eyes, he saw Pansy Parkinson sneak her arm around Draco, who leant into her.
'She deserved better than this! She deserved better than you!'
Harry opened his mouth – but no words would come.
'SAY SOMETHING!' screamed Daphne, shaking him violently.
Heads were turning, but neither Harry nor the angry sister of the woman who'd died for her true love could bring themselves to care. In the end, Daphne collapsed, sobbing wildly, shovelling mud at his shoes and trousers.
'She deserved better than you!' she whimpered.
Draco and Narcissa died that night. Narcissa died quickly, just the Killing Curse, nothing major. Draco, on the other hand, suffered. He screamed, raged, spat, and cursed – until he whimpered, cried, sobbed, and pleaded, dangling from his own intestines, just barely clinging to life thanks to the wonders of Potioneering.
Harry, thoroughly wasted for the first time in more than a year, had cursed the entire property, salted the earth, burned the ancestral portrait gallery picture by picture, and forced the delirious Draco to donate the entirety of the Malfoy fortune to Muggle orphanages around the city.
He'd tried to torch the mansion, too, but – in his drunken stupor – just couldn't get the charm right. Giving it up as a bad job, he'd just thrown in all the windows and puked on the doormat for good measure.
It hadn't come as a particular surprise that he'd found Pansy at the manor. Still, having his wand in his hand again had felt good – so good! She had been a victim of the circumstances.
The next day, when he came home – or at least when he stumbled into the dump that had been his refuge since the night he'd heard the news and couldn't bring himself to return to the house he'd bought only a few weeks ago – Daphne had been waiting for him, together with Percy.
'It was you, wasn't it?' demanded Daphne without any doubt or hesitation, her voice grating like tin after hours of crying.
''s right!' Awkwardly, Harry let himself fall back into his leather seat, his feet lazily clearing the table of bottles with one grand sweep.
Percy stared at him. 'You realise both Miss Greengrass and I work for the Ministry? Harry, I'm the head of my department, for Merlin's sake!'
Harry patted his pockets until, with a scoff, he produced his wand, tossing it at the momentarily tense Weasley. It bounced off the astonished Percy, hitting the floor like discarded trash. ''s the wand. All shpells shtill inshide. Do it then! Chuck me in prison, tosh me through the Veil.' He hiccuped, sinking lower in his seat. He was feeling so drowsy... 'I don' even care anymo',' he mumbled, almost incomprehensible.
The two sober people in the room exchanged a short glance. 'Harry, how much did you drink?' asked Daphne, eyes narrowing slightly.
'Dunno! Halfzen...Haffazen...Haffadozo...' He gurgled angrily. Deciding speaking was too tiring, he nodded weakly in the direction of the bottle protruding from his overcoat.
Reluctantly and with discernible disgust, Daphne carefully extracted the bottle. It was vodka so sleazy that it bore several slowly dropping price tags. 'Merlin, Harry, you had half a dozen of those?'
But Harry didn't answer.
'Harry?' Percy shook him softly.
There was no reaction.
'FUCK!' shouted Greengrass, pulling Harry's head over the armrest and pointing her wand at his throat. 'Weasley, you got any potions?! He's about to kick it!'
New friends – old wounds
Harry hadn't touched alcohol ever since. Neither conviction nor good advice had been enough to really sway him for too long. But, or so he found, guilt wasn't half as gentle an instructor.
Guilt was the constant painful reminder of your shame. Guilt was your ever-faithful, unwanted companion on your lonesome road to misery. Guilt was the bastard who plunged a red-hot knife into your heart, collected your black lifeblood, and forced you to drink the poisonous secretion of your wretchedly disfigured life.
There was also the fact that Daphne had plainly told him that his ass would belong to the Aurors the moment she so much as got a whiff of alcohol. Harry still wasn't convinced that wouldn't have been the reasonable thing to do in any case, but whenever Daphne stood in front of him, screaming her lungs out or scowling at him reproachfully, he couldn't help remembering her sister...
Sometimes, he wondered how such a woman could ever have fallen for him. She had even admitted that she hadn't been the least bit interested in him during school, cheekily remembering him as a 'swaggering, clueless bundle of nerves'.
She had been right, of course, still was, for all he could see, but – looking back – every memory of her or the child stung enough to force him through another day – just one more day – just this last day...
Daphne had got him a job with the Ministry, to his incredulity, where he was currently working under the moniker of James Flunk.
Maybe he shouldn't have let Daphne pick his alter ego.
His job? Mostly sorting archives – which proved to be rather simple once he'd successfully modified an old household charm. He wasn't anywhere as creative or good as Hermione had been, but a few of her fleeting comments had stuck. It might have helped that memories were rapidly becoming the only thing Harry cherished anymore.
They had tried to get the spell out of him, naturally, but Harry – in a momentary lapse of brilliance – had refused. And so, as he was the only wizard able to automatically sort the entire Archive of the Unspeakables per spell, he spent most of his time reading some of the non-classified reports, essentially being paid for resting his feet on the desk.
Croaker, his boss' boss, hadn't said anything.
He took another sip of coffee as he scanned the Prophet. He hadn't made that sort of casual blunder in years, but the very reasonable crossword section was on the third page, and he couldn't turn the huge paper with just his left hand. Thus, carelessly, he read the headline by accident.
'Minister Nott unveils the Draco Malfoy Memorial'
Ah, yes. It's almost funny. No matter how many of those slimy bastards you gutted, a few of them would always crawl back to the surface. Cockroaches, the lot of them – only, Harry had nothing in particular against the poor animals. They weren't at fault for their unfortunate appearance or their instincts.
Nott, however, definitely was. There had been...rumours, rumours of the sort that fully warranted the ellipsis. The battle on the day the Dark Lord fell – Harry smirked humourlessly, taking great joy from the fact that he was nowadays the only (vaguely) sane person left to still use the title in public – it hadn't been pretty. They'd been outnumbered three to one, outmatched, out-skilled. For most of those still left standing, the only impetus left had been the thirst for revenge.
There had been nothing else.
True, the first few years, it had been about pure-bloods and Mudbloods, about traditions and whatnot, but later – much later – all combatants left standing had lost too much to really care for idle fancies like belief or principles any longer.
Some people took it worse than others. Some only drowned their sorrow in cheap, plain Schnapps and vodka. Others raped little fourth-years they'd disarmed in combat.
Harry couldn't prove anything as such, but he nevertheless wished nothing more than to see Nott ganged up on by a wild and thoroughly drunk herd of Thestrals. He wasn't a monster; he didn't want the poor dears to remember the night.
For a time, he'd considered just offing the scumbag, but he decided that he couldn't. Well, he definitely could per se, but Daphne and Percy might get in trouble.
'Anything good in there?' drawled a Junior Unspeakable, her hood and voice masked by one of their fancy spells.
'No, just more of the same. Hey, Robins, you know any good bakery around here? I feel like pastries.'
'I told you, Flunk!' she snapped, instantly losing her cool and mysterious demeanour. 'My name is Bowtruckle!'
'Sure it is, Demelza,' he returned with a rather arrogant smirk. 'Now, what about that bakery?'
She groaned, rubbing the back of her head. 'I like the cinnamon buns from Golden Square...'
'Sounds good. Thanks, Demmie!'
With a cry of frustration, Demelza Robins, referred to as Bowtruckle by everyone but Harry during her working hours, watched the man lazily get up and leave. She knew she hadn't slipped. She knew she hadn't messed up. But the moment she'd exchanged two sentences with the man who – by all accounts – was nothing but a simple errand boy, he'd suddenly given her the most haughty of smirks she'd ever seen, thereafter only referring to her by her real name as long as they were in private.
It was annoying as hell!
Grinding her teeth against one another, she reached for the coffeepot and poured herself one of Flunk's delicious Muggle drinks. With a sigh, she took a seat in the vacant leather chair and leaned back...
'Our resident loiterer, I take it?' asked a voice so suddenly that she sprayed the sip she'd just taken all over their office boy's desk.
With a rush of panic, she hastily wiped her mouth, standing up and saluting her superior. 'Er, yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Got carried away, sir. Good morning, sir!'
Croaker chuckled, taking the pot and giving it a sniff. Nodding approvingly, he grabbed another empty cup.
'He really gets to me,' bristled Demelza, directing her wand to siphon the stains from her robes. 'Who the hell is he – er, sir!'
'Just some bloke from the streets,' said Croaker with a shrug. 'Got a recommendation and seemed honest enough. Not the talkative type.'
For a few seconds, Demelza hesitated, unsure how to proceed. In the end, she decided that she really wanted to know. Merlin, that person could get under her skin! 'With all due respect, sir, you remember I made my masteries in both Arithmancy and Protective Enchantments?'
'Your point being?'
'Sir, even though I'm positive he doesn't have a clue, surely you realise that the only reason he's able to sort the archive with that half-assed spell of his is that he forcefully overpowers the entirety of our wards?'
'Ah.' For a second, Croaker stared at the desk, sipping his coffee. 'Have you told anyone of this?'
'No, I haven't! But who the hell is he really? Sir!'
'Good. On that note, I think it's time for a promotion, don't you think? You've done a decent job so far, haven't you, Bowtruckle? See me in my office later today to get it all sorted out.'
Demelza couldn't believe her ears. What the hell?! 'Er, yes, sir. Thank you, sir!'
Croaker nodded primly. 'Good. You'll forget this little talk we had, won't you?'
New friends – old wounds
Harry sat on his ancient, worn couch, gazing ahead. Was this to be his life? Another forty, another seventy, another hundred years of dull routine to keep himself needlessly preoccupied and coping with the pain?
A knock on the door disturbed his ruminative silence, but Harry didn't feel like getting up. He snatched one of the books he'd ordered per owl delivery (The Department of Mysteries – Reprehensible or Redundant?) and started reading, ignoring the increasingly loud and rather insistent knocking.
Two minutes and what he thought might have been a kick of frustration later, he heard a key turn in the lock.
'Why won't you answer the door?!' snapped Daphne, coming to a stop a few feet in front of him and glaring angrily. She was still in her Ministry robes, though – to Harry's surprise – she didn't seem to be wearing any make-up. Both sisters had always been lovely to look at, but he would have figured with her being single...
Harry shrugged dispassionately. 'Only Percy and you know this address. You both have keys. Frankly, I didn't see the point of getting up.'
Daphne groaned, rubbing her eyes. 'You're a menace to mankind! How my sister could ever-'
But she didn't finish the sentence. Instead, she turned away so she wouldn't have to look at him. Harry, on the other hand, had dropped the book in his hand – though he had yet to realise that.
Painful moments passed in the wake of Astoria's name.
Eventually, Daphne managed to collect herself. Taking a deep breath, she had a look at his little hideout, her eyes lingering for a fraction of a second on the dozens and dozens of portraits that were placed around the room, their happy faces silently smiling in Harry's direction. 'Do you need money?'
Slowly, as if afraid that his hand wouldn't obey his command, he picked up the book. 'I get by.'
'Do you eat?' she demanded, randomly opening kitchen cabinets, probably on the look-out for hidden stashes of booze.
'Ate a cinnamon bun today.'
Daphne sighed, leaning heavily on the counter. 'Harry, you won't need me coming over to cook for you, right?'
'No, you're bloody well not! You haven't been fine for years, and you're still as far from fine as it's possible to be!' she spat, flaring up from one second to the next.
Harry stared at the book, privately hoping she'd just go away. It hurt. It hurt so much to look at her. And it must be the same or worse for her. Why couldn't she just spare them this pain? When nearly a minute passed in silence, he realised that his strategy had failed.
'You're right,' he admitted in a low grumble.
'Just...don't do anything stupid. If anything comes up, send me an owl. I'll check back with you next Monday.'
Harry grunted in acknowledgement. Daphne shook her head, threw him a look he wasn't able to read, and opened the door. Seeing her like that, standing resigned in the door, her appearance so similar to her sister's, made his stomach churn.
'How are you?' he asked, his voice gruff.
'Oh, I'm fine! Fantastic, never been better! Best years of my life! I'm fine!' Angrily, she slammed the door shut.
Harry didn't leave his flat for the next three days.
New friends – old wounds
'Deciding that you'd turn up at least twice this week?' asked Demelza. 'It's a wonder they haven't fired you yet.'
Harry shrugged, falling into his leather chair. 'I wasn't feeling too well.'
'What? Out with your old friends? Partying too hard?' she continued with a teasing grin.
'I don't drink.'
Harry turned his head, wondering not for the first time how his erstwhile teammate failed to recognise him. It was kind of funny that he'd seen through her set of spells at once, recognising her slight slouch, her tendency to stand with the left knee slightly bent, her quirky, strangely non-rhythmic way of speaking. And yet here he sat, plain as day, and still invisible to everyone but two people whose motivations, he suspected, were rather along the lines of duty than anything else.
'Congratulations, by the way.'
'Your robes,' he said, pointing at her sleeve that now had an additional mark. He'd read the books on Ministry uniforms. Dreadfully boring but – occasionally – helpful. 'You've been promoted.'
'Oh, thanks. Guess you're gobbling up more than those Martin Miggs comics!'
He shrugged. 'I'm currently reading Rita's works.'
'What – not Rita Skeeter? Please! You have the entire library of the Unspeakables at your disposal, and you stoop to that drivel?!'
'Well, I can only get the really boring books as long as I don't want my skin to rot or my eyes to burn out. So there's that...'
'I guess,' she agreed, boldly taking her second cup of the coffee he'd just made.
'Say, Robins, did you guys repair the Time-Turner room?'
That got her attention. She nearly dropped her cup of coffee, staring him full in the face – not that he could actually see her eyes. 'What are you talking about, Flunk? We don't meddle with time here.'
'Seriously, we don't! That sort of stuff is dangerous!'
She sighed. 'You're not going to let this go, are you?'
'What? The question of if you repaired it?'
'Why are you so convinced we have such a room in the first place?!'
'I'm not convinced at all,' he said with a shrug. Seeing her relax slightly, he added, 'That's why I'm asking. I mean, the whole cabinet full of Time-Turners wouldn't do you guys any good if it were still smashed to bits.'
'Wow, you can be annoying,' she said with a laugh. 'Stop reading Skeeter – seriously!'
'Did you guys make them? Why bother if you're not using them?'
Demelza put down her cup, one hand on her hip, her left knee – he realised with a sense of satisfaction – slightly bent. 'Why are you so interested in time, Flunk?' she huffed.
'Uh-huh...' she returned sceptically. 'Listen, I may be the youngest one around here, but it's not in my job description to discuss the stuff we have or the stuff we don't have in our possession.'
'Worth a try.'
'What?! You thought I'd just get all hot-headed and say something stupid?'
'Well, you're a Gryffindor, so there was that possibility, you have to admit.'
'How are you so sure I was in Gryffindor?!' she shot back.
'Maybe it's because you're about to take your third cup of my coffee?' Harry remarked coolly.
She smirked cockily. 'You'd be a Slytherin, then!'
Harry sighed, picking up his book again. 'Not all Slytherins are bad, you know?'
'Oh, I agree,' she said triumphantly. 'But you just gave away your ho-house!' she crooned in a bothersome sing-song voice.
Harry gave her a blank look. 'Damn my mouth!'
A glance into the past
Harry rested among friends, leaning on one of the bigger stones.
He just couldn't stop asking why. Why had it turned out like this? Why was he still clinging to his wretched life when so many better men and women had lost theirs? Hermione, Ron, Luna, Neville, Professor McGonagall, Hagrid, Tonks, Remus, Sirius...Astoria.
If it hadn't been for Daphne – the living, breathing and damnably persistent reminder of his greatest failure, his greatest shame – he might even have considered seeking an easy way out. But he couldn't. He'd done so for years – and where had it led him?
The bright morning sun stung in his eyes, and he sought a shadier place to rest. It suited him just fine. No, the coward's way out wasn't an option. He couldn't. But except his gratefulness towards Percy and the complicated mess of wistfulness, embarrassment, and compassion he felt towards the wrong sister, there was virtually nothing there that meant anything to him any longer. Nothing.
Those who might once have been his friends had long forgotten him. That wasn't quite true, he thought. In truth, they might just have...supplanted whatever could have hinted towards the real Harry, supplanted it with heroic tales, with anything the younger Harry might have done. The Prophet was even circulating fake photographs, depicting a healthy, sporty Harry with a winning grin. It was a kindness, really, not to disappoint them further. It was enough, wasn't it, that he had to bear the shame. No need to share it with others.
May Harry Potter live on in dreams and memories. He raised his ever-refilling bottle of cool water in silent salute. Cheers, pal!
The sun was beginning to set before Harry moved again. His thoughts, not for the first time, lingering on the day he had led his friends into the Ministry on an ill-conceived mission of...nothing. Just like with the fake locket, people had died for nothing.
Why had he been so stupid – why?!
It was almost midnight when a pair of policemen approached him. 'Sir? Are you alright?'
Bleakly, Harry raised his head.
'It's just...some residents have reported someone shady lurking around the graveyard.'
'I'm not disturbing anyone,' said Harry coldly. 'These people won't mind my company, I'm sure,' he added, indicating the next few graves. As luck would have it, the one at his feet read Fleur Delacour.
'I'm sorry, sir, but we'll have to ask you to leave,' said one of the men, taking a step forward.
Harry sighed. 'Isn't this a public area?'
'Nevertheless, we kindly ask you to leave, sir. It's late. I'm sure someone is waiting for you.'
Waiting for me, Harry repeated inside his head. Not here, at least.
A glance into the past
There was this one thought in Harry's mind – more the idea of a thought than anything tangible for now. But it was there, and it just didn't leave him alone.
It consumed him, haunted him day and night, drawing his attention whenever it would waver. It didn't allow him one moment of peaceful rest. For a day, he'd tried to ignore it, turn it off, think something different. It always came back, stronger, fiercer.
He knew why. It fed off his despair, off his shame...his guilt.
'Hey, Flunk!' Robins casually strode over and poured herself a cup of coffee. It was remarkable how she took for granted that his coffee was the property of the entire department. Nowadays, everyone seemed to think so, but Robins was definitely the root of the problem.
Harry grunted by way of greeting.
'Ever the philanthropist! Listen, some of the guys from below thought about putting together a league. We don't have too many people, so I'd probably only be two Chasers and one Keeper per team. You play Quidditch at all?'
'You're going to play in those robes, wearing those spells?' Harry snorted, picturing six Unspeakables zooming around, chasing an equally obfuscated Quaffle.
'Yeah, well,' she said, glancing in a resigned sort of way at her robes. 'That's one of the downsides of working here, I guess. So, you in?'
'Can't manage heights, huh?'
'Bet you only did the obligatory lessons back at school.'
'You got me.'
Robins flicked her tongue, casually stealing another cup worth of coffee. 'Damn, you're such a bore.'
A glance into the past
Harry heard the key turn in the lock, but – as always – he didn't bother getting up. Percy hadn't visited in a while, busy as he was with the second child underway. Daphne, though, had decided that, for whatever reason, she wouldn't let him starve to death – as she put it.
He knew Daphne had been working incredibly hard recently, and yet she still found the time to check up on him, even going so far as skipping sleep. Harry often wondered why she couldn't just leave him be.
There was a crash from near the entrance, followed by a shriek and some toppling noises.
'What in the world...?!' Daphne's voice rang through his little flat.
A few moments later, she teetered into his living room, a small avalanche of books following her inside. It was safe to assume that some of Harry's orderly stacks he had been working on for hours were truly ruined.
'What the devil are you planning with all of those?!' she asked, holding up a few books, more astonished than angry for once.
'Reading?' he suggested, deadpan.
She looked at him as if he were insane. 'Harry, there are literally thousands of books in the hallway.'
'I know; I ordered them after all.' And otherwise...obtained the rest.
She grimaced, peering at the books in her feminine hands. 'Magical Mysteries, Tackling the Test of Time, Unsolved Arithmantic Problems of Magic, Futuristic Pastimes of the Present – that's some heavy reading you're engaging in...'
Glancing around helplessly, she looked for some free spot in his living room to put the books in her hand on. There wasn't any, which was precisely why the stacks had eventually spilled into his entrance hall. With a sigh that clearly conveyed that what she was doing transgressed some holy principle of cultured life, she daintily put them down on the floor.
'What brought this about?'
Harry, still engrossed in his reading (Unravelling the Tapestry of Time), didn't look up.
'Are you listening to me?' With a glare at the book in his hands, she marched over, chest heaving. Harry, looking up when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, recognised the posture; Daphne Greengrass was just short of losing her temper with him again.
But suddenly – mysteriously – she came to a halt, her big, deep blue eyes widening. His brow wrinkled in confusion at the held off tantrum, so Harry decided to follow her gaze. She was still staring at the book in his hand, and comprehension appeared to be dawning...
Too late, Harry closed the book, turning it around to hide its title. 'So what can I do for you?' he asked in an attempt to sound casual.
'Oh, Harry...' Before his eyes, Daphne seemed to be deflating. Her voice had been soft, and she stared at him through doleful eyes.
'What?' he said defensively, averting his head. Daphne's similarity to her sister had never been more pronounced, more spooky, than right in this exact moment of uncharacteristic tenderness.
'You can't change what happened...' Not giving it a second thought this time around, she relocated a few books from the couch and sat down next to him. Harry had to focus not to shrink back – or crawl closer. Damn it all! Even though he knew Daphne wasn't wearing perfume, he could taste the scent of black currant and truffle. The ghostly scent was so strong, so befuddling, that – just for a moment – he wondered if Astoria could truly be gone.
He shuddered, craning his neck to turn his head as far away from Daphne as possible.
'Changing the past is impossible...'
Harry did not want to hear those words, did not want to listen to impossibilities. Hadn't he done the impossible dozens of times already? He was the man to beat the odds. Had been, maybe, but could he really be faulted for trying this one last time?
The impression of warmth startled him, and he twisted his neck just enough to realise that Daphne had taken his hand.
'Harry, this here is our life. We may not like it, but we have to make the best of what it is. Look forward or, if you can't bear it, at least have a look at how things are right now...'
Harry scowled. 'Would you try to stop me if I said there was a way to change it all? If there was a way for me to see how it should have been?'
Daphne's hand gave a twitch. Then, she licked her lips, speaking as if pondering each word with care. 'My sister loved you, Harry, and I loved my sister.' There was a crunching sound, but Daphne continued despite it, clutching his hand firmly. 'Not a day goes by that I don't wish it hadn't happened. But this is the truth – cold, painful, and not a fairy-tale; wake up and take a breath of reality.'
Harry stared at the broken picture his other hand had grabbed for something to do. It was a picture of Astoria, beaming at him, posing in front of the little lodge in the woods. He didn't know what to say, uncomfortably aware of how close Daphne was. Eventually, he couldn't take it anymore and looked up. 'Why do you insist on hurting us like this...?'
She gave a gentle smile, letting go of his hand after one last squeeze. 'Because I loved my sister. And for whatever mysterious reason, she adored you. I...don't want that to go to waste. I don't want you to go to waste. It's true that I blame you for stringing her along, and – honestly – you were the biggest jerk ever. But what I don't blame you for is Draco murdering his own wife! Besides, it's also true that, whenever I look at you, I remember my sister smiling from ear to ear, glowing with happiness.'
Harry finally looked at her. And for the first time, he thought the sisters weren't quite as similar as he might have once believed. Where Astoria's eyes had reminded him of blue lightning, fire and warmth, Daphne's were soothing, deep – like crystal or some precious gem.
'For me,' she continued, calmly meeting his gaze, 'she lives on in you. Don't insult her by throwing away whatever small measure of happiness you can find.'
A glance into the past
Harry's flat had undergone a remarkable transformation. What had been towering, neat stacks had evolved into a chaotic sprawl. The entire floor was littered with books, tomes, and scrolls. Only a narrow path from his living room to the kitchen and the entrance remained free of discarded literature.
Harry tore at his hair, letting out a cry of frustration. Resting his forehead on his arms, he slumped in his chair. He wasn't getting anywhere. He wasn't a specialist on magical theory – how could he be expected to do what even the Unspeakables were struggling to do?
And then it hit him. He gave a start, and – with an expression of determination – he grabbed his wand, kicked a few books on temporal paradoxes out of the way, threw a heavy coat over his shoulders, and spun on the spot.
Fifty-three seconds later, Demelza's meeting with her boss was rudely interrupted when someone hammered on the door of Croaker's office as if planning to tear it down – and quite possibly the entire building with it.
'Yes?' called the head of the Unspeakables placidly.
Flunk stormed in. He looked agitated, not at all showing his usual apathetic and boring attitude. Suddenly, there was energy. Suddenly, his usually dull eyes were alert and unclouded, darting from one thing in the room to the next. His piercing gaze, more even than the horrible scar he refused to let Demelza heal, made her wary. This wasn't the lazy vagabond from the street they paid to rest his heels – this was a whirlwind, the antithesis to stillness, motion bottled into a container that barely held it in.
'I need to ask a favour,' said Flunk, addressing Demelza's boss as if he wasn't interrupting a meeting.
'Now, see here, Flunk,' began Demelza angrily.
But her boss cut her off, waving a hand as if it were no big deal. 'Go ahead.'
Demelza's eyes widened slightly, humiliation, indignation, and disbelief bubbling in her guts.
'If I promise not to speak with a living soul about it, will you answer one question of mine about the research you're doing here?'
'Ridiculous!' jeered Demelza, laughing hysterically. 'You don't actually expect us t-'
'I don't mind.' Demelza, eyes round like a plate, actually had to look at her boss to verify that it was still the right person sitting behind the desk.
'Sir, with all due respect, you can't be serious about letting a civilian ask questions ab-'
'Bowtruckle, you will answer his questions with complete honesty. Do you understand me?'
'That was an order, Bowtruckle. We'll continue our discussion at a later date. Dismissed.'
She stared at her boss, fists clenched. Three seconds of angry silence later, she gathered her wits, saluting smartly. 'Yes, sir.'
Croaker nodded and swung his chair around.
She motioned for Flunk to leave first, slamming the door behind her with a bit more gusto than wise or polite, leading the way to her own office. Then, thinking better of it, she made a beeline for Flunk's desk. Maybe a cup of coffee could cool her down. Calm her down, she corrected herself.
The man followed her without complaint. When she threw herself into his chair, he raised an eyebrow.
'Coffee!' demanded Demelza, holding out her hand imperiously.
'You're pouting,' said Flunk with a grin. 'Upset that I interrupted your hot-shot meeting?'
'As if!' she lied. 'Now get me that coffee if you really want answers!'
Three minutes later, she put her cup down, letting a content little sigh escape her lips. The man was a real pain in the neck, but he did know how to brew great coffee.
'So?' she said. 'What do you want to know? Prophecies, death, how to turn lead into gold, immortality, dark magic so powerful that even You-Know-Who would have rightly feared it?'
Demelza nearly choked on her drink. 'Excuse me?'
'I want to know about time.'
'This again? Are you sure? You're wasting a good opportunity here. You could be powerful, you know? Even Harry Potter would rightly fear what we've sealed away here.'
Flunk gave a strange, pained little smirk. 'Time. I want to know about time.'
She raised her hands in defeat. 'Fine. What exactly baffles you so about time? Should I explain the physics to you?'
'No. Stop beating around the bush, Robins. I want to know about travelling through time.'
Demelza sighed again. 'Yeah, alright. What about it? You seem to know about Time-Turners, so I don't see how I could possibly help you. And yes, they're nearly all irreparably damaged. And no, the secret of their creation is long lost to time.'
Good one, she thought smugly.
'How far back is it possible to travel?' His vaguely familiar green eyes shone with eagerness as if the subject were a matter of life and death.
'Not very far. Have you studied Arithmancy at all?'
'Only recently,' he admitted, looking thoroughly unconvinced.
Demelza shrugged, conjuring a bit of parchment and a quill. Without any regard as to whether he could follow her line of arguments, she began drawing pages full of equations, columns and columns of numbers and – more often than not – columns without any numbers at all.
Flunk, to his credit, didn't complain. He just stared at the pages in silent concentration. When she had finished writing down the fundamental problem of time-travel, she stood up and walked over to his coffee maker.
Pouring herself another cup, she spread today's issue of the Prophet on the little table and began to read.
It was almost fifteen minutes later that she heard movement. Flunk had risen at last, and he looked like a corpse dangling on strings – diminished, weak, spent.
'Figured it out?' she asked, careful not to show how taken aback she was at how fast the man could go from overenthusiastic to dismally devastated.
Without looking at her, he nodded. Or rather, his head bobbed up and down pathetically.
Her stomach did an uncomfortable little flip. The war was still fresh on many people's minds. Maybe she'd opened some old wound again? 'Anything else you interested in? Riches, power, fame, or-'
'No, thank you, Robins.' His voice was cracking.
She didn't want him to leave in that state. 'The past is the past, Flunk. But that doesn't mean it isn't real. They say memories are a window to the past, don't they? They are real. Good memories will last you for a lifetime, a mite of solace.'
He looked up, staring at her, his brow furiously furrowed, and she could practically see the cogs turning behind those eyes of his.
'Solace,' he muttered yearningly, stumbling away.
No man's land
Daphne was terribly tired but, nevertheless, she checked her appearance in a little hand mirror before she knocked on the door of her dead sister's lover.
By now, she knew perfectly well that Harry wasn't likely to open, yet she'd sworn not to stoop to his level of manners. But the door, the knocking – it was also one more...boundary.
It was true that she'd started looking after Harry to fulfil an obligation to her sister, but – as of recently – she couldn't help wondering if maybe-
She vigorously shook her head, rapping at the door again.
No, that wouldn't ever happen. She always knocked, and she would always continue to knock. Waiting for the reply that would never come, she shot a furtive glance at the desolate corridor and the dozens of similar doors lining the drab hall left and right. How Harry could stand to live in such a place, she would never know. Maybe it was another form of self-punishment.
Deciding enough was enough, she finally rummaged in her purse for the keys. The door opened with a soft click; Harry never bothered to bolt the door. She knew he didn't live here, not really. Most of his stuff had already been transported to the sweet little cottage he'd bought for Astoria and him by the time the...thing had happened – except for the pictures of his dead friends. Harry didn't live in a flat, he haunted a memorial site.
Looking around, Daphne realised with a little sting near her heart that he'd apparently never found the courage to visit the place again.
'Harry?' she called, smartly stepping over a few heaps of carelessly discarded books. There was no reply. With a sigh, she tried to navigate the labyrinth of parchment that made Flourish and Blotts look like a jumble sale. She recognised a few of the covers. Why, a few of them looked like they bore the crest of the Department of Mysteries.
Was Harry actually allowed to take books with him?
'Harry? Are you home?' she called yet again.
The flat looked worse than ever. Ever since his decidedly unhealthy obsession with time had started, a feeling of foreboding had overshadowed the place – and Daphne couldn't help getting nervous. She knew Harry was hiding things from her, it had always been like that. But this time, it felt different, worse. While she'd initially only been visiting once or twice every week, she'd been checking in almost every day since last fortnight.
What she found today didn't ease her worries: vandalised books that looked like they had been used for training sessions involving some nasty curses; curtains closed even though the sun was beaming outside; and a stale, musty air.
She felt herself hurrying, almost jogging around the corner. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw him sitting on the couch, his dark pate bent over another Ministry book, this one with a blue binding. His eyes were closed, a peaceful smile on his lips. It was a smile she saw far too rarely these past few years... If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought he was meditating. Daphne finally relaxed, briefly wondering why exactly she'd been so worked up – even her breathing was ragged. Still, there was something soothing about seeing him sit there...
'Harry!' she called again.
He didn't react despite her practically shouting in his ear. Daphne clicked her tongue. Deciding that enough was enough, she shook his shoulder.
He gave a start, looking around. For a second, he seemed disoriented and...disappointed? His gaze locked with hers, and – as she'd become used to – there was the familiar little flinch he always gave when he recognised her.
'Oh, hey!' he said, hastily closing the book in his lap and putting it under the cushion.
Daphne smiled. At least he was still willing to talk to her. 'How are you?'
'I'm f-' Seeing her flaring expression, he corrected himself at the last moment. 'I'm feeling quite well today.'
He shrugged, desperately evading her eyes again.
'You've been skipping work again, James.'
'I know, it's just... I don't think there's much point to it.'
That was new. Interested, Daphne took a seat opposite him, inspecting him closer. By now, she was probably the expert on all things Harry Potter – the real Harry Potter, not the ridiculous tales and pictures the Prophet printed every other day. He did look a bit different today. Not quite as manically possessed as he'd been when he'd started his mad research, but there was still...something – some spark of direction. The longing was still there, but it was tempered with calmness. It was probably a good thing. 'What do you mean?'
'Look, I'm thankful you got me that job, but...it doesn't feel right to go on with it. Croaker doesn't really care what I do. Hell, he doesn't even care if I show up!'
'So you're telling me you actually want to work?' she asked sceptically.
He gave a short chuckle. 'Not really, but it all feels so...meaningless.'
She gave this some thought. Maybe he wanted to feel appreciated or needed? Daphne could understand that all too well. 'How about I ask around? Maybe you could do something for the Quidditch league? I could ask tomorrow if you'd like.'
Uncharacteristically, he bit his lip. 'Tomorrow,' he muttered. Then, he looked up, smiling. Something was strange about that smile. It seemed too wide, too confident. She knew Harry had confidence in spades; he just failed to apply it when it came to leading his own life. But maybe it was a good sign that he was willing to put in the effort? 'I'll have reached a decision tomorrow,' he said.
She stood up, smiling back, absent-mindedly patting the back of her cloak to get the dust of Harry's furniture out. 'Good. I'll be back the day after tomorrow and tell you what I've got.'
He nodded, the alien and toothy smile still plastered all over his face.
It made her uncomfortable.
Drawing the cloak tightly around herself, Daphne gave a cough. 'Well, I'll be seeing you. You'll speak to Croaker at least, won't you? It's bad manners to just duck out.'
He nodded again, but she could see that he didn't really intend to. At least he wasn't doing anything to avoid her yet.
She was halfway out of the flat-turned-antiquarian-bookshop when Harry's voice almost caused her to stumble. He hadn't got up, but his voice still followed her nearly to the front door. 'Thank you, Daphne. For everything. I mean it.'
Daphne was slightly flustered as she closed the door behind her. That had been odd. As far as she could remember, Harry had never thanked her like that.
She shook her head, banishing her lingering thoughts. She had a long day ahead of her, and she really needed to catch some sleep...
No man's land
Harry listened to the soft clicking of the lock. He was...conflicted about Daphne. But he was about as conflicted as he was convinced that this would be for the best. He had once asked her if she would try to stop him if he could see how things should have been, hadn't he?
On silent feet, he walked towards the front door, bolting it shut, reinforcing the lock with a few hasty charms. Tonight was the night. He could barely contain himself, the euphoria of leaving this horrible dead end of a timeline behind filled his entire being, tingled in his fingertips, brought a giddy smile on his lips. It felt awkward, though, as if he were out of practice. But, as with all spells, there was the possibility of things going wrong, and he owed at least one person an apology in advance.
Conjuring a stack of parchment, he leaned against the counter in the kitchen. He was struggling with the words, not least of all because – for once – he didn't intend to leave things out. It took him nearly two hours and countless tries but – eventually – there it was. He swept all the books from the table and placed the sealed letter where it would be found at a first glance.
Carefully, he wrote 'To Daphne' on top.
Harry closed his eyes and stretched his arms, enjoying the sensation of moving his body. It would be the last time in this place after all.
He was still excited, yet Harry couldn't deny that writing the letter had dampened his spirits somewhat. Sitting on his couch, though, staring at the five dozen frames that depicted his smiling friends all around him, waving, beckoning him, he felt himself steadily letting go of the hesitation.
Farewell, Daphne. See you on the other side...
He waved his wand.
Blinding white, a sharp whistle, the impression of a million sounds compressed into one second, heat – and then it was over.
With a grin of utter bliss, Harry stood on the threshold of Hogwarts, the real, undamaged, operating Hogwarts Castle. There was Hagrid's hut! Puffs of grey hovered in the air above his chimney, the friendly bark of Fang echoing all the way to the main gate. There was the forest! Unburned, verdant, the ancient, marvellous trees swaying healthily in the warm summer breeze. And the Great Lake! The spicy summer winds brimming with the scent of the beach, the flowers, the greenhouses.
Harry stretched out his arms and laughed.
He was back!
For a few minutes, he just stood there, wearing the sights and sounds and scents as if they were a cherished coat he'd forgotten and rediscovered in some dark corner of the attic. He laughed and laughed, the trees of the forest swaying gently back and forth, nodding their heavy treetops with indulgence – grandfatherly figures amused to watch a child at play.
Eventually, he produced his wand and transfigured his clothes into simple black robes. His face hurt from smiling, but he just couldn't help it. Now, everything would begin for real.
As Harry took the first step towards the castle, he had the vague feeling that he'd shed something, left something behind – something of importance. But the sun was still warm, the air was still fresh, and he was still smiling; surely, it couldn't have been all that important...
No man's land
'And that's why it's important to always consult with experts when dealing with matters of visions and dreams. Unless you study Occlumency for years, any thought or momentary picture in your mind that you find even slightly alien should give you pause, especially if you've recently had a duel or have been subjected to unknown spellwork. St Mungo's has its specialists, of course, but – happily – our very own Professor Snape is a veritable master of this obscure field of magic. If you pluck up the courage to ask him politely, I'm sure he may be swayed to offer guidance and advice.'
There was some sceptic snorting from Gryffindor's Quidditch Captain.
'Five points from Gryffindor. Yes, Miss Robins, I'm serious,' added Harry severely. 'Professor Snape may not be a...people person, but I won't stand for anyone doubting his dedication to this school and its students. That includes Gryffindors – even if he may feel inclined to the occasional acrimonious comment. Any last questions?'
'I think I'm in trouble, Professor. There's always this one person who haunts my dreams...' purred a Gryffindor girl with long, curly dark hair, winking boldly at him. She was leaning forward rather daringly, playing with a few strands of her glossy mane in a way that was probably supposed to look fashionably absent-minded but – in reality – looked simply awkward. Harry sighed. This was the downside of teaching older students.
'You'll probably be just fine unless the dream keeps repeating itself, Miss Vane,' replied Harry neutrally, sitting down on his desk. 'Still, there are warning signs: unexplainable surges of strong emotions, visions of places you haven't seen but recognise by description – that sort of thing.'
'My dreams are just weird,' admitted Robins with an embarrassed chuckle. 'Like, flying cars and talking animals and stuff.'
A few of the others laughed. The atmosphere was unusually relaxed considering his standards, but Harry figured his students had earned as much. The NEWTs were next week.
'Professor?' One of the few Slytherin girls attending his class politely raised her hand.
There was the same momentary lurch Harry's stomach always gave whenever he looked at the girl. He'd never quite figured out why.
'Yes, Miss Greengrass?'
'Aren't dreams inherently malformed visions of what we know? Twisted effigies of our own perception? What could possibly be stranger than our imagination?'
The girl looked at him expectantly, her big eyes wide with honest curiosity. A few of the Gryffindors sniggered. Even though her looks were, from what he gathered, understandably popular with most of the boys, her way of speaking didn't endear her to her peers. In that regard, she was a bit like that Gryffindor, Granger, who had graduated two years ago.
Many of his students tended to stay in contact for a while after their graduation, yet very few did so with such genuine gratefulness as one Hermione Jean Granger. Harry tried to keep things as professional as possible, especially in public, and – truthfully – while he enjoyed teaching, he wasn't particularly fond of socialising with either his colleagues or the children. Nevertheless, that bookish smart-arse had been a secret favourite of his. Not that he'd ever given her reason to realise that.
Harry's subject was quite popular in most houses. That didn't necessarily mean that he was particularly well-liked, of course. Amusingly enough, he was widely regarded as a slightly tamed version of Severus Snape. At least his teaching and competence were appreciated, that was all that truly mattered to Harry anyway. So while he was very used to full NEWT courses, he had only once been so...thrown off-guard by any of his students. Something about Astoria Greengrass made him uncomfortable, nervous. It was the sort of nervousness that Vane's blatant attempts could never hope to achieve. Astoria's older sister had been the same. At least Daphne Greengrass hadn't taken his NEWT class, a small mercy, but her eyes had been just as mesmerising, in a cool, still sort of way – like azure gemstones.
With a jolt, he realised that he'd been spacing out, staring into those glittering, spritely eyes of the younger sister. He coughed to collect himself, averting his gaze. 'Quite right. But dreams are still only part of the inner workings of your mind. If you never witness, hear of, or think about death in any form, it will be all but impossible to dream about it, don't you think? As you said, dreams are a mirror of what we learn. You cannot dream about what you have no concept of.'
'Fair enough, Professor, but wouldn't that defeat the purpose of such an attack in the first place? What if we're up against someone competent? How would we be able to tell if we're held captive in a dream of ours if it's fashioned after our own experiences?'
With a frown, Harry reluctantly looked in her direction again. The girl was smiling cockily at him, daring him to refute her point.
Thankfully, the chime rescued him from having to come up with an answer. In a demure, clinical sort of voice, he said, 'Since we sadly didn't have enough time to fully cover Miss Greengrass' intriguing query, you will all compose an essay of at least three feet about possible solutions to the presented conundrum. You have one week to finish this assignment.'
The winning smile slid off the blonde. His other students groaned collectively.
'But the exams, Professor!' cried one horrified Hufflepuff girl, close to tears.
Harry shrugged coldly. 'This is a school, Miss Smith, and homework is what school is all about.' For a few seconds, he enjoyed the looks of justified outrage. Eventually, he smirked, grabbing his briefcase and nodding in their general direction. 'You lot are as green as my first years. There will be no homework. Enjoy your weekend. I'm expecting great things from you next week.'
There was a lot of groaning and cheers of relief, and Harry – in the darkness of the corridor – allowed his smile to widen as he headed towards the teachers' lounge. The room turned out to be almost empty – almost.
'Have you been bullying your students again?' asked Professor Sprout, squinting at him suspiciously.
Harry dropped the little grin, shrugging again. 'Not my fault that they're so gullible. Is Poppy still in the infirmary?'
'I should think so,' huffed Hufflepuff's head of house. 'I appreciate what you do with the subject, but couldn't you try to be a bit more approachable? You aren't still upset about Valentines, are you? I know it must have been embarrassing, but it doesn't pay to dwell on unpleasant memories! They're just children!'
Seeing as the matron wasn't here, Harry turned around, lazily raising his hand in farewell. 'I'll consider it, Pomona.'
There was another reason why Greengrass' innocent line of questions had been so uncomfortable. Ever since the accident (or maybe attack?) Harry had lost most of his memories. He regularly checked in with the Matron, drinking elixirs provided by the Potions Master, but – so far – there had been no discernible effect. His past was as much a mystery as his last name. Strangely, his knowledge or skills weren't affected by his amnesia, causing speculation to run wild that he had indeed been the victim of a powerful variation of the Memory Charm. Harry liked to think he had been an Auror. Given his skill set, it made as much sense as anything else. Dumbledore had promised to look into this enigma. Maybe, at his behest, the Ministry could dig something up on him.
As a light joke, or so he figured, the headmaster had proposed that he call himself Riddle, referencing his unknown origin.
It wasn't particularly witty, but a bad name was better than none at all. At least it wasn't a very common name among wizards. Corny as it was, he had to admit it was strangely fitting. For now, he was content to continue teaching Defence and leading the Duelling Club as Professor Riddle. In a quiet sort of way, he liked his life just the way it was. Teaching was gratifying, his workplace was brimming with mystery, knowledge, and untapped power – not to mention that he had most of his days to himself.
It was a calm, modest life, and Harry liked it that way.
There had been doubt, at first, about his qualification to teach – mostly due to his youth and weak constitution. When he'd proposed that he'd gladly accept a friendly duel with the headmaster, the old man had raised an eyebrow but – after some persuasion – eventually accepted. Dumbledore had been guarded and careful, clearly unwilling to scare or harm Harry. That had lasted for about four seconds until Harry had lost his patience and an onslaught of non-lethal curses had driven the old man to finally get serious, his grandfatherly, indulging smile slowly turning into a quizzical frown.
They had shared a heated, invigorating duel before Dumbledore had called it quits five minutes in. In terms of experience, ingenuity, creativity, and skill, the ancient headmaster had the upper hand. Reactions, movement, and concentration, on the other hand, seemed to favour Harry. Even in sheer power, he thought he had the edge, if only slightly.
The signature under his contract of labour was drying only a few minutes later.
Most of the staff had been very careful around him after his display – except for Severus Snape, who seemed gratified that the headmaster had, for once, hired a no-nonsense, competent teacher, and Dumbledore himself, who appeared intrigued rather than intimidated.
Oh, and Minerva McGonagall, of course, who kept nagging him to be nicer to his students. Recently, even Pomona seemed to have gathered the courage to berate him. It was easy to shrug off the portly head of Hufflepuff, but something about the stern, penetrating gaze of Gryffindor's resident cat-witch caused him to feel some amount of vague...embarrassment? Shame? Whatever it was, Harry usually caved in rather quickly whenever Minerva came around for another lecture on 'proper behaviour for lores men'.
Brooding if his strange reactions to certain people were possibly linked to his amnesia, Harry marched towards the infirmary for his weekly medical examination...
No man's land
The first weeks of June were always barely controlled chaos. NEWTs and OWLs all but shut down most regular activities around the castle, including all the classes. It was a slightly melancholic occasion for Harry; while he certainly didn't like all the brats strutting around Hogwarts as if they owned the place, he couldn't help feeling that the ancient corridors and halls felt very much...forlorn and desolate during vacation. That was precisely why he allowed the last lessons of the year to slightly derail from sensible procedures. However, one had to draw the line somewhere...
'For the last time,' Harry said in a tight voice of exasperation, 'we will not have a show match between me and the rest of the club, Mr Creevey.'
Harry really wanted to know how the brats had got wind of his little sportsmanlike challenge to Dumbledore a few years back. Privately, he suspected Minerva's involvement. There probably was some kind of lesson to be learned there – or something.
'But why not?!' whined the excitable sixth year.
'Dennis is right!' agreed another Gryffindor, Natalie McDonald, loudly. 'Come on, Professor! This is our last lesson for this year.'
'It's my last meeting with the club!' shouted a Ravenclaw seventh-year prefect from the back. 'You lot can just nag him next year!'
'I don't do tent shows!'
'I heard you did one two years ago, Professor,' came a rather playful-sounding voice from amidst the throng of Slytherins.
There was a hush of silence – only disturbed by a very soft but clearly ringing 'Oops!'
'Who told you that?!' snarled Harry, displeased. He'd made that year swear to him they wouldn't tell. And he'd only given in because...
'My sister,' replied the familiar blonde, smiling guiltily at him, tucking a loose strand of wavy hair behind her ear with delicate hands.
The classroom exploded.
'UNFAIR!' cried one of the Hufflepuffs, Laura Madley.
'Please, please, please,' begged Dennis Creevey, prostrating himself, bowing his head in worship.
'Just give it up, Professor,' chuckled one of the Slytherin prefects, coolly leaning against the wall. 'They won't ever let it go now.'
Harry, eyeing the room of vivaciously complaining, whining, begging, and cajoling students, couldn't help agreeing with Pritchard.
'Fine. Fine!' he yelled, holding up his arms to indicate he'd given up. 'But you will all be required to swear a binding, magical oath that you'll never tell anyone. If one of you little ingrates ever tattles on me, you'll be sporting spots that'll make the Vesuvius look like a cute little knoll. Got that?!'
If the loud cheering was anything to go by, that didn't seem to be a problem. Even some of the more reserved Slytherins joined into the hooting. Greengrass, still smiling apologetically, was the notable exception.
With a half-hearted snarl, he conjured a piece of parchment, embedding a mild but rather persistent hex within the soon-to-be contract.
'Sign!' he commanded, daring them to refuse.
They didn't. An orderly line formed even without his instructions, and his students proceeded to cheerfully sign what he'd called 'Contract of confidentiality between the members of the Duelling Club, Hogwarts year 2000, and Professor Harry James Riddle.'
He just hoped none of the poor little buggers would be stupid enough to break the contract. It would be awkward to explain to Poppy why he'd hexed his students with semi-permanent, self-restoring acne.
They all stared at him, grinning and pleased with themselves, causing Harry to raise an eyebrow. These recalcitrant blighters really were underestimating him.
'A-and now?' asked one little Ravenclaw third year who was positively shaking with excitement.
'And now, we begin,' said Harry with an evil smirk, bowing politely.
A lot of cheating ensued, with many hexes and jinxes already in flight while he was still finishing his affected, pompous bow. For a moment, Harry considered transfiguring the furniture into a sea of harmless but rather repulsive bird spiders, but maybe he was just being petty. He didn't want to traumatise his students.
Ducking and weaving under all the spells the forty members of his club launched his way, Harry scratched his chin ruminatively.
A few Gryffindors immediately took the bait, sprinting towards him to close the distance. Still effortlessly dancing around a dozen spells per second, Harry decided to educate them first. One little flick of his wand later, the room expanded and, to the shock and horror of his students, tilted. Suddenly, the charging Gryffindors were trying to scale a sleek, slippery acclivity with a gradient of about 40%. Most stumbled, ungracefully sliding down and crashing into their peers who now stood at the end of a softly tapering off slope. Robins and Peakes had, to Harry's surprise, managed to cast a charm to steady their footing in a remarkable feat of presence of mind.
Harry loomed over his class, standing at the end of a 50-foot-scarp, idly twirling his wand, smirking down at the faces below who looked up at him with expressions of shock and awe. 'Well, shall we start for real, then?' he asked benignly, still spinning his wand. With a wave of mock farewell at Robins and Peakes, he dispelled their Sticking Charms, grinning as they flailed desperately to keep balance before they started skidding down the slide.
No man's land
Harry gazed into the night, his head resting against the cool columns of the open tower. The sky was a canvas of blurred shades of black and blue, howling gales of the summer storm smacking against the grey walls of the castle. Each flurry sprinkled him like the spray of heavenly waves.
Tonight was the night of the End-Of-Year Feast, but Harry couldn't bring himself to attend, and so he'd sought shelter in the least likely place anyone would ever look for him – the very top of the clock tower. Here, he could brood in peace – far removed from the frivolities below. He didn't feel like he belonged. The thought of joining the chipper gathering below felt...off, almost sickeningly wrong. It was true that he wasn't particularly fond of company, but the thought of two lonely months in a nigh-abandoned castle was quite depressing all the same.
He certainly wasn't in the mood to celebrate being left behind, and so he would stay here, alone. And nothing and nobody would intrude – or so he thought.
'Good evening, Professor.'
A whiff of an unusual perfume combining truffle and black currant forced him to yank his head around. 'What are you doing here, Greengrass,' he grumbled sullenly. 'The feast is still in progress.'
She gave a bright little smile, arms tucked behind her back, taking a few kittenish steps forward. 'Shouldn't you be attending, too?' After a pause that was just long enough to qualify as pertly, she added, 'Professor?'
Harry flicked his tongue, rudely turning his back on her.
She didn't seem disturbed. 'Now that I'm no longer a student of yours, I have to ask. Do you have something against me?'
Harry noted that she didn't even add his title for politeness' sake this time around. 'No,' he replied tersely.
'Well, a girl could get the idea, you know, when her professor always grimaces when he looks at her. For a while, I thought there was something wrong with my face! I was very nearly upset.'
'Extremely nearly! So? Am I that ugly?'
'There's...nothing wrong with your face,' said Harry curtly, refusing to look at her.
She laughed, and the rain seemed to dance to the tune of her melodious voice... 'I know.'
Harry scowled. 'Then why did you make me say that?'
'Because I enjoyed you stumbling over the words! You always look so gloomy, so grouchy – at least as long as you're not trying to wind us up. You could use a little brightening.'
'That's none of your concern, Greengrass,' he said brusquely, hoping the girl would just scamper off.
She didn't. Harry didn't say a single word for nearly five minutes, rudely ignoring his silent companion and gazing into the dead of night. But she just stood there, not too far from him, apparently quite at ease.
'Some of the boys you blow off in Hogsmeade could use a little brightening, too, from what I hear,' he said eventually when he realised that she'd probably stay even if he kept his mouth shut for another ten minutes. 'Aberforth, Rosmerta, and Puddifoot had a bet going, you know, if you'd ever take one of them on a second date. Aberforth appreciates the business, by the way. He's got a lot more customers ever since you decided to take your failed dates to the Hogshead.'
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her grinning sheepishly. 'They were all really boring.'
'So what? Your type not among all of that?'
'So what is your type, then? I'm sure between Slughorn's social club and me, we can find someone to satisfy your lofty standards.'
She leant her back against the railing next to him. For just a second, she hesitated, but then she gripped the railing hard and returned a steady gaze. 'I dare say you can. I like strong, dark, brooding men.'
Oh my God. His answer got stuck in his throat. He hadn't planned this, hadn't accounted for this! Vane was bad enough but this... 'I'm a teacher, Greengrass. And you're a-'
'A woman who has just graduated from school! I can do whatever I want, and you can't even give me detention if I decide to throw myself at you.'
Harry snorted. 'Throw yourself at me – really,' he said in an unconvinced voice. 'The girl who fled, blushing like a tomato, just because a drunken Quidditch star mentioned the word "bum" in her presence?'
She crossed her arms. 'Who told you that?! And that was almost two years ago!'
'And you've had lots of experience ever since?' he asked, raising a challenging eyebrow.
'Well, no, but-'
'Then what exactly are you going to do?' Harry grinned, still staring into the depth of the night.
'Oh, I don't know. How about something like this?'
Suddenly, she pushed his right shoulder, forcing him to turn towards her. She was closing in on him. Nervous as she was – her face flushed pink – she inched closer.
'Or are you going to push me away, Professor?' she whispered, her breath caressing his skin, the strangely familiar scent dominating his mind.
She closed her eyes. Harry just stood there, paralysed. She was close, so close, any moment now-
A fearsome flurry smashed against the tower, drenching them both from tip to toe.
'Eep!' Astoria gave a start, jumping backwards. Disbelievingly, she stared first at Harry and then at herself. She gave a squeal of laughter. 'I hadn't expected my first kiss to be that wet.'
Harry frowned, watching Astoria agonise loudly at the state of her clothes – out of sheer nerves, he suspected. He'd been completely swept along. Despite his callous words, he hadn't even entertained the notion of rejecting her. What was going on?!
Without a clear thought, he ran his hand over his face to wipe away the worst of the rain – and his hair. As if tasting the kiss they hadn't shared, he smacked his lips. His brow wrinkled in confusion.
Perplexed, he stared into the night.
Astoria grinned at him from the side, her wet hair clinging to her skin. 'Maybe the heavens are against us being together, Professor! Maybe it isn't meant to be! Maybe our time is already up!'
With a teasing laugh, she turned around and fled. Near the exit, she came to a sudden halt, looking over her shoulder, gazing at him with a sultry look. 'Or maybe it isn't? Your choice, Harry.'
Harry watched her go, gaping into the darkness that flooded the tower in her absence. Another gust brushed against the castle, spraying his skin with tiny droplets of rain.
Turning back towards the night, he realised that a fissure was running through the cover of clouds, light rushing through, illuminating the world that had lain in the dark, light the colour of her hair struggling against the darkness.
His gaze was drawn towards the rain. Like fluid splinters of lapis lazuli, the rain glistened in the blond light that tore through the blanket stifling the land.
Staring into the brightening sky, he wiped a bit more water from his face. How very strange. He hadn't imagined it after all.
Beneath the lid
It was night, and the entire Ministry stood deserted. Well, almost the entire Ministry. With a look of determination, Demelza Robins was preparing to break into her own workplace. The absurdity of what she was steeling herself to do would usually not have been lost on her humorous side, but right now, she entertained no such thoughts. Something was wrong!
Flunk, her boss – everything! Something sketchy was going on within the department, and she was going to find out no matter what. She wasn't entirely sure if she had sufficient clearance, but she was an Unspeakable, so even if she got caught, she might end up being okay – possibly.
The door to the archive of the Unspeakables unlocked silently under her wand's direction. Studying wards definitely had its uses.
What to look for first? Flunk...Funk.
Now that she thought about it, she'd never heard of any family named Flunk. She'd never heard of anyone actually being called Flunk at all!
A fake name! She grimaced, embarrassed by the late epiphany.
Impatiently tapping her wand against the smooth wood of the bookshelves, she tried to remember as much as she could about the man. She remembered his stupid little charm, and how it was wreaking havoc on all of their wards. So he was powerful – absurdly powerful. At the same time, mysteriously, his training seemed to be...suboptimal. He had admitted that he could barely hold his own with Arithmancy, and the spell he used to sort the books – even a Hogwarts student could get that one right.
What else, what else...?
There was his obsession with time, of course. Demelza rather had the impression that he'd lost something dear, possibly in the war, so maybe she should start looking there?
Embarrassingly enough, she didn't really know anything about what had happened during the later stages of the war. She'd hidden with her family in France for most of the time, only returning to participate in the last battle. At Hogwarts, however, she'd taken a bad bludgeoning hex during the first hour, only coming to almost an entire day later when the dust had literally settled.
Thinking back, she couldn't help feeling some small measure of gratefulness for that. She'd woken in some abandoned place of the castle, far removed from the last battlefield, but even there had been so many dead bodies, so many lives thrown away...
But someone of Flunk's power should turn up somewhere even if the name was fake. If he wasn't under Polyjuice, and Demelza was fairly sure he wasn't, having paid attention to his drinking habits, maybe a description of him might turn up in one of the old Auror reports.
With a nod, she summoned the records of the last battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, opening one at random.
'This is the confidential report of Junior Auror Williamson.
By our rough estimate, opposing forces consisting of both assimilated Ministry personnel and Death Eaters severely outnumber the remaining loyalists. Forward scouts report additional backup as well as giants, werewolves, and vampires within the Forest. Their overall numbers are estimated to exceed four hundred.
Loyalists consist of three Hogwarts teachers, five dozen students, about six dozen relatives and other adults, several house elves, and the Hogwarts ghosts.
Tactical assessment: No contrivable chance for victory. Commanding officer orders stand-by. Auror Daniels breaks ranks and is summarily relieved of his duty. Senior Auror Walsh protests but desists.'
Demelza shuddered. She hadn't realised how bad things had been back then. She also hadn't realised that there had still been free Ministry troops – or that they'd chosen not to participate. Now that she knew, she wasn't entirely glad she did.
'This is the confidential report of Senior Auror Murphy, acting scribe of forward platoons one, operation Final Victory.
1830: Rebel forces engage left flank near greenhouses. Seven Ministry-aligned casualties. Rebel casualties unknown.
1839: Rebel thrust repelled. Barrier placed. No further Ministry casualties. Nine rebels out of combat, four deceased.
1846: Ministry advances on the Great Hall. Heavy counter-fire. Enemy forces entrenched.
1848: Unknown curse breaks open Great Hall. Roof collapses. Casualties unknown.
1850: Forces ordered to advance. Two Aurors arrested and to be court-martialed for lending aid to enemies in exigency against explicit orders.
1853: Enemy forces estimated to be down to half. Survivors retreat disorderly towards the grand staircase. Undesirable Number One still confirmed active.
1906: Fighting in the Hall of Stairs persists. Minor Ministry losses. Enemy losses unaccounted for.
1931: Staircase breached despite sabotage attempts. Enemy retreats towards the seventh floor. Destination unknown.
1941: Isolated resistance. Troops advance following rebel retreat.
1949: Ambush near Hall of Hexes, seventh floor. Platoon ordered to desist following commanding officer's incapacitation. Operation continues. Eight enemy combatants taken out. Remaining enemies estimated to be within single digits.
2118: All forces ordered to stand down.'
Demelza clung to the parchment, her entire arm shaking. What was this?! They had been losing! But...but they had won, hadn't they? And some Aurors had been arrested for helping children who had been buried under tons of rubble?
This is horrible!
Grimly, she browsed for more battle reports, but most seemed to conclude around the time of the ambush near the Hall of Hexes.
That's right outside the Room of Requirement, thought Demelza pensively.
She threw herself at the reports, digging deeper and deeper, eventually even looking at the smaller ones that only consisted of a few hastily written (and sometimes blood-smeared) lines.
There was nothing.
With a frown, she closed the files. She couldn't believe even her own department's records had been tampered with, but she still had other avenues. She summoned another file. In a way, it was the file. It was the file of the enemy who had nearly toppled the country – Voldemort's file.
Hastily, she turned pages about conjectures, anecdotes, sightings, and relations until she found the last entry.
'Expired at exactly 2109 within Hogwarts in the presence of one witness. Proven to be involved in several misuses of the Imperius on Ministry employees. Case closed under Order 2118.'
'Case closed?' snarled Demelza disbelievingly. 'What the hell happened there?! This isn't over!'
Bristling, she summoned the files of active Aurors, starting with Senior Auror Murphy. Most of the last few pages, however, had been deleted. Again, only the last entry remained.
'Questioned and found to be under the influence of the Imperius. Agreed to be obliviated following summary hearing. Current address: Wooden cottage, outskirts of Ashford. Case closed under Order 2118.'
Not willing to give up, she summoned the file of Auror Williamson. Angrily, she slammed the folder on the reading table. Almost five years' worth of entries had, again, been censored. And right under his nomination for the Order of Merlin, second class: Case closed under Order 2118.
Demelza threw a scathing glare at the words. So all files had been forcefully shut. Had something gone wrong? How that they won?! Hadn't Harry, her old captain, triumphed? And why had the Auror been obliviated?
Obliviated – wait a second!
With renewed vigour, Demelza pointed her wand. 'Accio Obliviator Files!' She deftly caught the zooming files heading her way, fretfully opening the first folder with so much force that she nearly tore the binding off.
With bated breath, she flipped towards the fated day of the Battle of Hogwarts.
'Personal log of Obliviator Jones:
Roughly seven o'clock: We're still to hold out near the Great Lake in case something goes wrong with the operation. We can hear the explosions from here – and the screams. They reach us all the way from the other side of the lake. Sometimes, a few cries and shouts are as clear as if the person stood right next to us. Water can be funny like that – I know – but it's freaking me out. Ashley had a genuine panic attack, and we've had to restrain her by force. The screams are torture. More terrible even than the howling from the Forest – especially since that last, gigantic explosion ten minutes ago. Now, whenever the wind turns, we can hear the pleading and whimpering in the air. Damn it, what's happening over there?! I thought this wasn't supposed to be a serious battle?!
Eight o'clock: Ashley vanished from within her tent. Miranda and John went after her, but we haven't seen them either ever since. I hate this place. And there still are people crying for help. Why won't they help them already?! I have half in mind to run over there myself!'
Half past eight: Still no trace of Ashley, Miranda, or John. Most of the crying is slowly dying down. Merlin, they aren't letting them croak slowly, are they?!'
Quarter to nine: A deserter came by. Apparently, You-Know-Who's been seen entering the castle – with Aurors in tow! What the hell's going on?! Leslie and most of the others have skived off. It's getting lonely here. We're down to four from sixteen. Damn!'
Ten o'clock: Shacklebolt ordered us to obliviate everyone who witnessed the scene of the final battle, removing exactly one day's worth of time except the vague knowledge of You-Know-Who's demise in such a way that it's completely irrecoverable. Merlin, I'm actually glad we're to be obliviated afterwards. When I arrived at the place, I threw up my last three meals. Marlow just fainted. Freaking hell, I wouldn't be surprised if I had nightmares despite the obliviation. I miss you, Jeanette. I promise I'll never argue again – ever. I promise I'll retire tomorrow. I promise I'll never get into another fight! We'll buy that house in Paris, and we'll leave next week. I promise!
Half past ten: It was awkward to obliviate all the big shots and their kids, I just hope we don't have any loose ends. Damn...the kids. There were lots of pure-bloods too. Surprisingly, a few wounded ones that have arrived ever since turned out to belong to the reb- loyalists. It's a mess. I don't have any idea anymore who's with whom. There's just so many! Macmillan, Malfoy, old Xenophilius, Nott, the Greengrass girls, all the Carrows, Selwyn, Rabastan, even the Weasleys – or what remains of them, I guess. Poor sods.
276 forced obliviations all in all – and a single volunteer. Not that I'm entirely sure it worked on him. I've never seen a mind that closed off. Only that one girl even got him to talk. She's got courage, I'll give her that.
Man, he's a mess. And fucking scary. I nearly wet myself when I looked into his eyes.
So I guess only old Croaker and Shacklebolt will keep their memories. Crap, speaking of the devils, here they come. Guess this is it. Hopefully one of them's decent with his charms. I really hope so. Oh, now that I think about it, they're going to shelve this log, aren't they? Damn...'
They obliviated everyone who participated in the last battle?! Wait – did I...? Doesn't matter right now, I suppose – focus! So the boss knows something about the battle. Did Flunk participate, too? But why was Jones scared of Harry?! And did he infer Harry wanted to be obliviated as well? I don't understand. What happened?!
For a few moments, Demelza stared at the files scattered all around her. Then, inspiration struck. There wasn't only one file about Voldemort. While it's true that there was only one about him as a person – if such an innocent word even applied to that monster – there was one for every person the Ministry (or rather her department) considered a genuine threat to society. Maybe someone had got lazy and hadn't bothered to check the other one?
'Accio Dark Lord files of the last ten years!'
There must have been some kind of mistake with the archive, though, as – strangely – two files zoomed towards her. One was labelled He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Someone had pencilled the words Tom Marvolo Riddle underneath.
The other read: The Last Dark Lord (?)
What in the world...?
Voldemort's file was more or less a carbon copy of his own folder. Except for the ending:
'Died as a result of unknown, volatile dark magic. Extreme collateral of material and human element – including friendlies. Confirmed deceased by Unspeakables called to the scene. Head of Unspeakables recommends immediate obliviation of all witnesses present. Temporarily presumed head of Aurors agrees. Order issued under reference to magical law, Wizengamot Emergency Act 1066. Case closed.'
Demelza's eyes tore at the words. Dark arts? she thought. That can't be right!
With some amount of trepidation she couldn't rightly explain, she opened the mysterious second file.
'Due to suspected use of the virulent Blood Fountain Curse, Individual is presumed to be dangerous to society. Did not resist questioning. Did not resist submitting memories. Memories undecipherable due to emotional upheaval. Did not resist further inquiries. Did not resist disarming. Legilimency failed. Veritaserum failed. Asked to be submitted to obliviation. Request granted. Competent Obliviator raises concerns about success of obliviation. Noted.
Individual under permanent surveillance following events at Hogwarts. Hearing temporarily suspended pending plea of Head Auror Shacklebolt. Head of Unspeakables agrees to keep case low-profile. False leads planted. Media involved.
Agents note: Individual appears to show no interest in studying or using magic.
Agents note: Individual appears to develop severe case of psychological trauma.
Agents note: Individual succumbs to extreme case of dissolute lifestyle.
Agents note: Individual failed to defend himself with magic when covertly provoked or attacked.
Agents note: Individual failed to respond to magical probing.
Agents note: Individual has not used magic for more than a year.
Timestamp: 56 months passed. Case reopened following Individual's murder of Draco Malfoy, Narcissa Malfoy, and Pansy Parkinson in an act of revenge for the death of long-term lover and child.
Minister demands immediate arrest. Head Auror and Head of Unspeakables disadvise to keep some measure of control.
Head of Unspeakables proposes closer surveillance on day to day basis. Minister approves.
Individual hired for menial tasks as an additional asset to the Department of Mysteries.
Agents note: Individual appears to have developed extremely self-destructive interests.
Agents note: Sister of dead lover only remaining stabilising element in Individual's life.
Minister orders Sister to be put under surveillance. Head of Unspeakables and Head Auror disapprove.
Agents note: Sister appears to be put under unduly work strain. Suspected influence of Minister.
Head of Unspeakables allows Individual to question staff about research to further self-destructive interests.
Agents note: Individual may soon cease to be of concern.'
Demelza didn't move, still holding the same breath she'd taken as she'd opened the file. They think Harry is a threat to society? They could only be talking about Harry, couldn't they? But wasn't Harry abroad? And they passively encouraged his self-destructive interest to keep him out of the picture? That's awful! How could they?!
They'd even gone so far to have him under their thumbs at the Dep-
Demelza stumbled back, shaking her head. The file fell to the floor with a soft thud, but she didn't care. 'No,' she said, her voice hoarse. 'No, no, no. That can't be! It simply can't be!'
For a second, she overlapped her memories of the companionable Quidditch captain and the brooding, sunken visage of Flunk. They didn't exactly compare. Except for the eyes, they were a perfect match.
Hysteric, Demelza yanked the file about her co-workers and their current residence out the shelve. Not even bothering to put all the others back in place, and spun on the spot.
She needed to know for sure, she needed to speak with Harry!
Things you cannot leave behind
Daphne Greengrass stared through bloodshot eyes at the mirror in her luxurious bathroom. She hadn't managed to fall asleep – at all. And now it was five in the morning. For some reason, Harry's queer goodbye just wouldn't stop cavorting through her mind. Her stomach was bubbling with uncertainty, keeping her from the rest she so desperately needed.
Should she actually visit him before work? Sooner or later, her excuses as to why she was visiting so often would fall into question. What should she say if he asked again?!
An angry buzzing around her wrist alerted her that someone was trespassing on Harry's and Astoria's property. With a scowl, she jumped into the tracksuit trousers she used for working out, grabbed her wand, and – still wearing the comfortable tank top she wore for sleeping – apparated to the place she kept a watch over for Harry. In a strange way, it was also a shrine to her sister; a reminder of what could and should have been.
She reappeared in a whirl of leaves in the middle of the clearing. It was still twilight, but within the gloam, she could make out a slender, red-headed woman who was just about to enter the house. Apparently, she'd already dismantled all the wards Daphne had agonised an entire week over. Damn!
'Hold it right here!' Daphne shouted, aiming her wand. 'Slowly drop your wand and turn around. I'll shoot to incapacitate if you don't.'
The young woman froze. Then, with what looked like a sigh of resignation, she hesitantly dropped her wand, raising her hands. 'I just want to talk! I'm looking for Harry!'
'Who are you? Who told you about this address?!' Daphne knew Harry had never told anyone but Astoria. And Astoria had only told her, chuffed to bits, squealing with joy. Her stomach turned, but she stayed strong. This wasn't the time for a guilty conscience or melancholy.
'I, er, I looked it up in the Department. There were two listed, and this was the first so...'
'Are you an Auror?' demanded Daphne suspiciously. 'I don't believe I've ever seen you at the Ministry. What do you want with Harry?!'
'I'm...not an Auror.'
'So what?! You the cleaner?' She glared, raising her wand to point it at the woman's face. 'Or are you with Nott?'
'What?! No, no! I'm – damn – I, erm, may or may not be an Unspeakable.'
Daphne stared disbelievingly at the round and friendly face of the woman who radiated guilt like the sun warmth. 'Do I know you? What's your name!'
Daphne vaguely recollected that name from ages past. 'You were on his Quidditch team, weren't you?'
'What was his favourite move, and why didn't he do it anymore starting fifth year?!' snapped Daphne, carefully gauging her reaction.
The woman, Robins, blinked. 'Wronski Feint, and because Hermione kept yelling herself hoarse, clawing at her own face. He still did it, though, just not with her watching.'
Slowly, Daphne lowered her wand. 'Fine. What do you want with him?'
The woman, finally able to relax now that no weapon was pointed at her, had a second look at her. 'You! You're Daphne Greengrass! The sister of-'
'What do you want with him?!' yelled Daphne, her wand-arm automatically rising again.
'I, er, I...' The woman licked her lips nervously. 'I found out some...stuff. I just wanted to ask if it's true. Because if it is, I've been, like, the biggest ass ever.'
'What sort of stuff?' asked Daphne, beady-eyed.
'I'm...not sure I should tell y-'
Daphne's wand, once again, rose to point straight at Robins' face. 'What sort of stuff?!'
'I, er, found out that he's been working with me under a fake name, but I never even recognised him! I also read some...stories about the war.'
To the woman's apparent surprise, Daphne sheathed her wand. Harry had mentioned an annoying co-worker who kept stealing his coffee. 'Don't speak about the war to him – ever! If you do, I'll slap that slappable face of yours until I've beaten the knowledge out of you – understood?'
Robins gulped. 'Understood.'
'Anyway, let's go. I'll apparate us since I'm not sure you know his actual address.'
'What do you mean? Isn't this his address?'
'No, it's...it's the place he bought for my sister and their child. They never moved in.'
Robins' jaw snapped shut with an audible clacking sound.
Daphne wordlessly held out her arm for the woman to take.
'Why do you trust me with this?' asked the self-proclaimed Unspeakable, eyeing her strange assortment of clothes – especially her slippers.
'Because,' explained Daphne, conjuring a mantle for decency's sake and because she didn't want Robins to get any ideas about her visit to Harry, 'Harry needs all the friends he can get. That is all.'
Finally, the sporty woman took her arm, and – with the following, twisting travel through the dark – they reappeared in the depressing, grey corridor. They weren't, however, alone. Another ginger, this time a man in a pinstriped suit, was fiddling nervously with the door, muttering under his breath, throwing shifty looks down the other end of the corridor.
'Weasley?' asked Daphne, taken aback. And, indeed, it was Percy Weasley, Head of the Department for Magical Transportation.
He gave a tremendous start. 'Oh, ahem, yes. Good morning, Greengrass,' he said, standing as straight as a dart. He looked rather flustered, being caught fiddling with a lock.
'What are you doing? I know you have a key,' said Daphne, eyebrow raised.
'Yes, thank you very much, it just so happens that it won't fit. I think some charm is interfering with the lock.'
'Can I have a look at that?' asked Robins.
'I'll have you know,' started Weasley pompously, 'that I know very well what I'm d-'
There was a click, and the door swung open.
Weasley stared with very unflattering disbelief at the young woman. 'Who's she?' he grumbled.
'Unspeakable,' said Daphne, feeling some amount of satisfaction that it wasn't only her own wards that didn't hold up.
'Does he often lock himself in?' asked Robins curiously, beholding the mess of books in the hallway with fascinated horror.
'No, never,' said Daphne. 'Maybe he's just messing with his stupid research about time again?'
Weasley looked out of the loop. Serves you right, you smarmy know-it-all, for not bothering to drop in on a regular basis.
Robins, however, frowned. 'But he's over that. I explained it to him. It doesn't work!'
'I said that, too!' said Daphne, scowling.
'Yes, well, I gave him the evidence, that's all I'm saying. And he's accepted that, and he's over it! I mean, these last few weeks, he's only borrowed a few books on Occlumency and Pensieves and the like. He isn't bothering with that time nonsense anymore.'
Daphne coughed. Her throat felt suddenly extremely dry. 'What do you mean, he's over that? He's got more books in there than ever. He hasn't left his flat in nearly a week!'
'Odd,' repeated Daphne, her head swimming. She didn't want to waste any more time in the stupid corridor. She needed to know right now that everything was alright! She needed to see him, see him sitting on the leather chair or on the couch, head bent over some stupid book, his dark, unruly hair partially concealing his fathomless eyes. Roughly, she shoved Robins out of the way and stormed inside, books flying through the air around her as if she were a snowplough paving the way through the most literal precipitation in history.
Her heart was beating so very hard.
Dashing around the corner, she came to a sudden halt. There he was, sitting on the couch precisely how she'd left him, the same uncommon but warm smile on his lips that she'd seen only yesterday. 'It's alright, he's here! Harry?' she called, slowly approaching. 'Harry, are you awake?'
Weasley and Robins filled into the room behind her, but Daphne hardly noticed. 'Harry?'
There was no reaction. From behind, she gave his shoulder a shake – just like she'd done only a few hours ago. This time, however, nothing happened.
'Harry?! Hello, wake up already!'
Robins, carefully stalking around the fallen towers of literature, put a finger to his carotid artery.
Daphne's breath caught.
'It's alright,' said Robins quickly, seeing her expression. While Daphne still tried to shake him awake, Robins had a look around the books scattered around Harry's feet. Weasley just stood behind them wordlessly.
'Harry, wake up already. Harry!'
With a gasp, Robins picked up a Ministry book with a blue leather cover that Daphne vaguely recognised from yesterday.
'What?' demanded Daphne, still softly shaking Harry's shoulder. His head lolled sadly from one side to the other. Robins, however, was still staring at the book, her eyes widening with every passing moment. 'What?!' demanded Daphne again.
Robins looked panicky, and she took a step back. 'I didn't give him that book!' she insisted, looking defensive and waving her hand. 'I swear I didn't! He must have got it by himself or...or...'
'What is it?!'
'It's...a book about Occlumency. But it's bad – it's forbidden!'
Robins quailed under her gaze. She opened her mouth a few times, gaping like a fish. Then, she handed her the tome. 'Read the introduction.' Immediately, she turned away, proceeding to shoot spells at Harry.
Daphne felt as if the entire world had lost its footing. She was staggering, tumbling, slipping down a long, dark slope of vertigo. With arms that felt like they didn't belong to her, she took the book, opening the first page.
'An Occlumens Guide to Memory Immersion
Warning, take heed that the following exercises are never to be undertaken alone and without supervision. Prolonged plunges into one's consciousness bear the risk of losing oneself in memories or imagination. Uninterrupted immersion may cause the person to become catatonic or even lose the ability to re-emerge altogether. Particularly schooled minds are able to create environments, real or fictitious, that are indistinguishable from the real world.
Under no circumstances are these exercises to be made available to people suffering from psychological trauma or severe depression. Subjects willing to lose themselves in their dreams are recorded to wane as fast as a matter of hours.'
'W-wait,' stuttered Daphne. 'So...what does that mean? You mean he can't come back?! Get him out of there, Robins!'
'I'm trying,' whined Robins, still firing spells by the second. 'But it's no use if he doesn't want to come back!'
'This is all your stupid department's fault! Get him back,' sobbed Daphne hysterically, tears flowing freely. 'Give him back right now!'
Robins bit her lip, tears of her own trickling down her face. But she didn't reply, spells still sputtering from her wand like a magical water fountain.
'Greengrass,' said Weasley in a low voice.
'NOT RIGHT NOW!'
'Greengrass, it's a letter. Addressed to you.'
Weasley held out a small sheet of parchment wrapped in cloth and closed with a wax seal. She almost ripped it out of Weasley's hands, breaking the seal. She immediately recognised Harry's terrible scrawl.
With quivering hands, she unfolded the letter, impatiently wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
For more than two dozen years, I've tried to find my way in a world without ever truly belonging. Growing up, I lost just about anything – my parents, my childhood, my friends, and then my love. Once, I was close – so very close. But I was foolish, young, and – as you so rightly said – the biggest jerk ever. It took me nearly five years to make up for all my blunders – only to see happiness snatched from within my grasp, thwarted yet again.
I don't think I have it in me to go through that another time. I'm terrified of what I'll lose the next time.
There are things you don't know about me, things I probably wouldn't ever be able to talk about face to face. I did things, terrible things, to win the war. You won't be able to remember it. You were there, you know, with Astoria, the day the Dark Lord fell.
I can still see it vividly before my eyes. The both of you were tired, your bright, blond hair riddled with filth, grime and plant tendrils, your clothes dishevelled. You had a gash near your calf that you kept trying to hide from view. Astoria had a broken shoulder. She was resting her head on your back. But the both of you were mostly unharmed. Grim, devastated, disillusioned with yourself, someone else or perhaps whatever you believed in, but you were there, and you were alive. You were lucky.
I don't even know which side you were on.
Not that it truly mattered near the end. I just wanted it all to be over, just like everyone else. And I tried to finish it, with all my might. But I wasn't strong enough – not nearly strong enough. Nobody but me still remembers.
We were five at that point, the rest scattered throughout the castle, wounded, frightened, buried underneath the rubble, dead. Five people against most of the Dark Lord's inner circle, Aurors, and Voldemort himself. Me, McGonagall, Kreacher, Bill Weasley, and Aberforth.
He was mocking me, in that high and cold voice of his, sicking his inner circle on us like dogs, content to watch from behind, enjoying the 'fight'.
There was no fight. I was tired, McGonagall was injured, and Aberforth was past his prime. Bill was maybe the staunchest, bravest of us, and he put up a fight. Which was why he died first. I can still see his look of surprise, his determination making way for the realisation that he'd been hit from the side.
It was Voldemort. He enjoyed watching us despair, he had no use for heroics. He wanted us to know our place. He kept taunting us, especially Aberforth, about our impending failure, our death, our weakness, our dead friends...
At some point, I don't even remember when, he said something that struck a nerve, and Aberforth actually lunged, jumping across half the room, and smacked him. He was dead by the time the slap landed, of course, but the humiliation of the blow unleashed a terrible fury. He tortured McGonagall, held her under the Cruciatus, later even the elf, until they could barely scream anymore. I was forced to watch, kept from interfering by the rest of them who duelled me instead.
Something broke within me, something just didn't want to deal with the screams anymore, didn't want to watch my friends suffer anymore, didn't want to wait for the end. Next thing I remember, I stood in a room plastered with red.
They were all dead, and I knew I had done it. Voldemort was bested, but he had still won. The monster was gone, and here it was yet again. The only way I was able to beat him was by becoming like him.
People arrived not too much later. Shacklebolt, Unspeakables, Obliviators, others, the both of you...
And as I awaited my turn to be obliviated, I sat on the cold floor, no coherent thought existing within my mind. I hadn't even cleaned myself. Some of the Aurors pissed their pants when they had to ask me questions. I really just wanted it all to end, to embrace the comfort of the void.
But then someone actually approached me. I vaguely recognised her, a gorgeous blonde, a bit younger than me perhaps. Others were squeezing themselves against the wall to stay as far away from me as possible, but she decided to talk to me.
I really don't know what it is with you and your sister. You both really, truly lack common sense. Everyone could see that it would have been best to leave me alone and yet still she came. Just like you did these last few years.
As fate would have it, the obliviation didn't work too well for me. I tried to put up with it – and failed instantly. You know I barely lifted my wand in those years. I was afraid, Daphne, of becoming like him, of already being like him.
First, I tried to keep away from Astoria. I thought I was safe. I kept telling myself that she wouldn't remember. You know I wasn't the most pleasant of people around the time, but still she approached me at parties or public appearances or a few times even in my favourite pub. No matter how rude I was, no matter how brooding, how moody, she still would always walk over, share a talk, poke fun at my grim expression.
She was the light when I was at my darkest.
You know the rest.
It's been seven years, Daphne, but nothing's changed for me. The world is moving on without me. History can be funny that way. For years, I was always afraid one of the obliviated would try to seek revenge, or perhaps that I'd overlooked some important Death Eater. No such thing ever happened. I was always so afraid of loose ends, but – until recently – it never occurred to me that the only loose end the last war had was me.
I'm the invisible stranger. It's a joke, isn't it? Even a former teammate of mine doesn't recognise me. No, nothing's changed for me. In a way, I'm still cowering in that corridor, bloody rags clinging to my exhausted body. And – just like last time – there is only one person willing to approach me.
You once said that when you look at me, you see your sister smiling from ear to ear. When I look at you, Daphne, I too see your sister. But I don't only remember the good times, I also recall that it was ultimately I who was responsible for her death, for little Jamie's death. I remember my greatest shame, my ultimate failure, my one and only, undeserved chance at happiness – which I ruined. What I see is regret.
You're young, Daphne, you're beautiful and smart. Don't mourn an old, washed-up whino. I'm leaving you everything I own, including the cottage. I hope you can find some use for it in years to come. I'm the last relic of a time best left forgotten, a relic that has wasted away its chance at happiness. And now, I can finally join the other ghosts of bygone times, and – as someone recently told me – maybe hope for a mite of solace.
Tears were splattering the parchment again. Daphne carelessly tossed it aside, jumping over the couch. Robins, who had long since stopped her attempts to force Harry back, stood aside, her lips trembling.
Gently, Daphne cupped his face, resting her forehead against his.
'Don't be so selfish, Harry!' she pleaded in between the sobs. 'Please, just this one more time. Please, I promise, just one more time! I promise I'll stay! I won't ever leave! Please!'
And as she whispered to Harry, beseeched him to come back, her tears, shining like ephemeral gemstones, slowly trickled down his face, dangling like dew on his eyelashes, slowly running over his gaunt cheeks, all the way to his slightly parted lips.
Things you cannot leave behind